Jesus’ return and the science of reentry


Atlantis rentering earth's atmosphere (from space station)


Over at the Jesus Creed, a lively discussion over Jonah and the whale has been going on.

The question posed is what would happen to Jonah if he was really swallowed by a fish? The post then quotes an article describing what happens to a person who was swallowed by a sperm whale, here is a portion of that grisly tale:

As the stomach acids broke you down, you would continue through three smaller stomachs — a chain of membranous, acid-filled cavities. The second stomach is Sshaped, and the third is more like the first, only smaller. Then, liquidated, you would ooze into the intestine, and eventually leave the whale as excrement, floating out of the anus and into the cold deep ocean, dissolving still further until you had become so small as debris that you were indistinguishable from the ocean itself. You would lap against whaling ships looking for whales.

The article from which the quote is taken challenges the reader “Still, you’d like to think it’s possible”. The implication here is that it is improbable (impossible?) for a person to survive this experience. While  there are certainly more important things to take away from the book of Jonah – like how to manage our anger and while a discussion can certainly be had as to the literary genre (historical narrative or a parable) it is interesting to see that many are willing to dismiss the possibility of the story as history (at least in part) based on the scientific evidence that one would simply be digested.

In an attempt at humor I can imagine this same group puzzling over how Jesus might fulfill his promise to return (Matt 24:29-31; John 14:3) given the scientific evidence for what happens to objects that go through the earth’s atmosphere:

Launching a spacecraft into space is one thing. B­ringing it back is another. Spacecraft re-entry is tricky business for several reasons. When an object enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it experiences a few forces, including gravity and drag. Gravity will naturally pull an object back to earth. But gravity alone would cause the object to fall dangerously fast. Luckily, the Earth’s atmosphere contains particles of air.

When it enters the atmosphere, it starts hitting these molecules of air which aren’t moving very much. Since the spaceship is moving very very fast, it hits each molecule of air very, very fast like a car hitting something on the road. The higher up in the atmosphere, the fewer molecules it hits; the closer to the Earth, the more molecules it hits. This is called friction.

This friction causes the object to experience drag, or air resistance, which slows the object down to a safer entry speed.

The disruption of it’s velocity energy expended with each molecule it hits turns into heat. The deeper into the atmosphere it gets with a great amount of speed, the greater the heat since it’s hitting more molecules at a time the faster it goes.

Specifically, shuttles face intense temperatures of about 3000 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1649 degrees Celsius)

[Mashup Source: HowStuffWorks and Wiki.answers]

Science can demonstrate that without heat shields, parachutes, and proper reentry angles a person returning from space would have a pretty tough time getting back to Earth. Using only what we know of science then imagine the scene given descriptions of Jesus returning on a white horse wearing only a robe.

I have no problem with the science here and also no problem placing my hope on the promise of His safe return, because the fact is Jesus is the One through whom all things were created and is also the One who sustains the very universe. Miracles by definition defy science. Otherwise they would not be miracles.

When Jesus encountered the stubborn rich, young, ruler who walked away from Him, He tells the disciples that it is difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom, in fact it is basically impossible. The disciples are stunned. Then Jesus tells them:

With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God. – Mark 10:27

Far harder than preserving a man in a fish, is the changing of man’s stubborn selfish heart. And since God can do that  (I am living proof) I also believe He could have preserved Jonah through the ordeal of being swallowed by a fish.

2 thoughts on “Jesus’ return and the science of reentry

  1. It seems quite a non-sequitur to talk about his return as such a physical thing. For two reasons, 1) The transcendence is just that – it transcends the physical world and 2) The idea that Jesus would need to move in the physical world to transcend then implies a specific crossover area or ‘gateway to the other side’. That makes sense right?

    Would you agree?

  2. Welcome to the blog. I think I understand your point to a degree. However Zechariah 14 and Acts 1 (among other passages) point to a literal return to this earth (on Mt. Olives) by Jesus so I do see that as a physical thing.

    That said, this post was an attempt at humor emulating a post on Jesus Creed regarding Jonah and the whale.

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